This is the sixth entry in the Urbanism Hall of Fame series, exclusive to TheCityFix. This series is intended to inform people about the leading paradigms surrounding sustainable transport and urban planning and the thinkers behind them. By presenting their many stories, TheCityFix seeks to challenge our readers to think carefully about what defines leadership and innovation in sustainable transport and urban development.
Barcelona has become one of the world’s premiere destinations: it is full of life during the day and night, with incredible food, amazing buildings by Antoni Gaudí and Jean Nouvel, great museums with masterpieces by Joan Miró and Salvador Dalí, the famous La Rambla street and Boquería Market, and one of the best football (soccer) teams in the world, FC Barcelona. It has undergone several stages in its development to become a favorite global destination, starting with the development of the Gothic Quarter – which is now a historic, mixed-use, and mostly pedestrianized district – followed by the city’s planned expansion under Ildefons Cerdà in the 19th century, and more recently, the city’s impressive renewal in preparation for the 1992 Summer Olympics under Mayor Pasqual Maragall.
Maragall succeeded Narcís Serra in 1982 and was re-elected twice, serving as mayor until his resignation in 1997. His efforts were continued by the next Mayor Joan Clos – now the Executive Director of the United Nations Human Settlements Program (UN-Habitat). The three mayors – in addition to a series of planners and architects – jointly received the 1999 Royal Institute of British Architects RIBA’s Gold Medal.
The award remarks: “Both the process and results of Barcelona’s rebirth are exemplary. Though always with city-wide goals in mind, initial interventions were local and low budget, yet big in impact – not least because their design flair drew international plaudits … Hosting the Olympics was only part of this larger, still continuing strategy of up-grading the whole city.”
As a leading force behind Barcelona’s transformation, Maragall earns his place in TheCityFix’s Urbanism Hall of Fame.
Securing the Olympics in Barcelona
In 1979, Maragall successfully campaigned for city council as part of the Socialist Party of Catalunya during the city’s first democratic elections, in which his friend Narcís Serrá was elected mayor. Maragall became his deputy, and along with Serrá and his friends, he began dreaming about hosting the summer Olympic Games in 1980. They publicly announced their intentions in 1981, receiving support from Prime Minister Felipe Gonzalez’s democratic administration. Barcelona was selected over Amsterdam, Belgrade, Birmingham, Brisbane, and Paris by the International Olympic Committee in 1986.
The Olympic bid was based on recent improvements to road infrastructure under Maragall’s administration, including the completion of the city’s second ring road and multiple tunnels, in addition to proposals to profoundly transform the La Barceloneta neighborhood, which had very degraded beaches, buildings, and warehouses at the time.
Barcelona’s urban transformation
Urban renewal efforts began in 1986, immediately after the announcement that Barcelona would host the Olympics. Efforts concentrated on the central beachfront area, and were focused on long-term improvements that would shape the city well after the Olympic Games. Barcelona’s old port became a recreational and sports area, and its old industrial neighborhood of Poblenou was remade for residential use. In addition to upgrading its beaches, the neighborhood of Barceloneta received significant investments to build the Olympic Village, which would later be repurposed for housing. These transformations along the city’s southeast edge helped balance the more developed areas in the northwest along the prominent Avinguda Diagonal.
The Olympic Complex was built on top of Montjuïc Hill, and included a tower by Santiago Calatrava, along with multiple Olympic venues – highlighted by the Olympic stadium. The area is now one of the city’s most popular tourist destinations, combining sports venues with museums and recreational areas.
Maragall insisted that cultural venues be renovated as part of the Olympic investments. These included the National Museum of Art of Catalonia, the Municipal Auditorium, the National Theatre of Catalonia, the Centre of Contemporary Culture, the Museum of Contemporary Art, and the new Botanical Garden in the Parc del Migdia on Montjuïc.
The legacy of urban upgrading
Maragall’s dream was not just to host the Olympics; it was to make Barcelona a metropolis. Barcelona had been Madrid’s ‘poor sister,’ but Maragall led a team that made it a unique global city. His work was continued by Joan Clos, and the city keeps improving every day.
In his memoirs, Maragall indicates that, without a doubt, the Olympics were the catalyst that situated Barcelona on the world stage. Barcelona is now a global tourist destination and an international capital for culture and cosmopolitan life.
A striking video shows the city’s transformation in just 180 seconds:
Many cities that have hosted major events are stuck with white elephants – venues inappropriate for future use after the games. As a result, more and more cities are taking themselves out of the running for hosting the Olympics. Barcelona, however, provides a perfect example of how to use major events to spark urban revitalization as part of a larger, long term strategy. As RIBA’s president described, “Probably nowhere else in the world are there so many recent examples of a benign and appropriate attitude towards creating a civic setting for the next century.”
After stepping down from the Mayor’s office in 1997, Maragall continued his academic activities, and served as President of Generalitat de Catalunya – the province of Catalonia’s government – from 2003 to 2006. In 2007, he announced that he had been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease and he created the Pasqual Maragall Foundation to fight against the illness. His legacy continues to serve as an example for cities to use major events for redevelopment efforts, and as a model for long term urban renewal planning.